Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer


Jimmy Amadie                                                                                                           ©2014 Danny Miller

Early evening, December 10, I awoke from a jet-lag nap in Helsinki, just in time to rush to dinner with people I hadn’t met before. As I was leaving my room, I took a look at my e-mail and learned, as much as I didn’t want to, that Jimmy Amadie, the Philadelphia pianist who had fought an extraordinary personal battle against hand injuries to play jazz, had died.

Stopping, thinking, cancelling dinner wasn’t a choice.  I had a meeting place, but no phone handy and no number. Sometimes you stop and think without taking time. Part of it was the loss of someone I considered a friend, part of it the loss of a singular musician. I think a great musician is one who creates an original relationship with time. People like Armstrong, Young, Coltrane and Braxton, and both Charlie and Evan Parker may be the obvious ones, but there are others as well, like Philly Joe Jones and Wilbur Ware. In his own way, confronting challenges that would simply defeat others, Jimmy Amadie was also that kind of musician.

Jimmy and I never actually met, but we talked on the phone off and on over a fifteen-year period. I heard his first record, Always with Me, when it was released in 1996, sent to me by Bill Smith when he was editor/publisher of Coda. Bill would put together thematic batches of CDs for article-length reviews. I reviewed Jimmy’s Always with Me in a piano batch. He liked the review and approached me to write the liner note for his second CD. I was delighted to do it. In the years following we would talk occasionally. He was particularly supportive in the early years of the millennium when I was treated for cancer, inquiring about my health and encouraging me. A while later, when he was diagnosed with cancer, he called to talk about my treatment experience. I encouraged him to take advantage of whatever was offered. He was, as almost any article or interview or memoir or sound bite makes clear, an exceptional human being ... gentle, considerate, enthusiastic and fiercely determined.

Here’s much of the liner note I wrote for the second CD. Although revision might improve it, it might also falsify its relationship to Jimmy’s special time:

Savoring Every Note (1997)

Jimmie Amadie’s previous CD, Always with Me, was the long delayed debut of a fine jazz pianist, playing music infused with subtlety and special meanings. I was startled when I first heard it, because it did something that’s seldom possible, something that has to do with the way we experience time. It would be easy to say the recording made the past live, but that isn’t it exactly. It’s that and something more, though Jimmy Amadie is a distinctive stylist whose work was first shaped in the 1950s and yet retains its original creative edge today. There’s something unique in Amadie that has to do with his history, and it has allowed him to meld and concentrate time in special ways.

Beginning his career four decades ago, Amadie was encouraged by the great bop pianist Al Haig and often worked with trumpeter Red Rodney. In 1959 he led the house trio at New Jersey’s Red Hill Inn where he regularly backed greats like Coleman Hawkins. He toured with Woody Herman’s Herd and was accompanist to Mel Tormé. Playing and practicing compulsively, even when already hurt, Amadie injured his hands, suffering severe tendonitis and nerve damage that virtually prevented him from playing for almost thirty years. Francis Davis recounted much of Amadie’s medical history in his essay for Always with Me, a litany of surgeries that continues to this day.

Now that might seem like a sad story, but as Jimmy Amadie recently said to Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition, it’s not a sad story at all. Instead it’s a unique story about determination and rebirth, a story in which frustrations result in a finer art. After further surgeries to both hands in the early nineties, Amadie found he was actually able to play again, if only infrequently, for a few minutes at a time. In 1993 NPR producer Danny Miller and engineer Joyce Lieberman set up recording equipment in the pianist’s home so that he could record whenever he was able, a few minutes a month, often late at night. Each piece was preceded by hours of isometric exercises and followed by more hours of icepacks.

Ironically, it might be just those years away from the piano that kept Amadie’s conception fresh. Barred from the piano, busy teaching, composing film scores and writing textbooks on harmony and improvisation, he was spared the nightly repetition of the same tunes, spared the erosion of thought into cliché, idea into easy effect. Instead, his music lived inside him in all its original, breathing, immediate, intensity, further enriched by the years of mental practicing and thinking about harmony. Listening to Amadie, we hear a mature musician whose unique circumstances have allowed him to recapture time.

With the easy proliferation of CDs, we might overlook that jazz at its best is a philosophical action, a measure of the potential of the moment. In his liner note for Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue, Bill Evans defined the essence of the jazz musician’s art, comparing it to “a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible.”

While Evans defined what for many musicians is only an ideal, for Amadie, practicing his art within a set of severe restrictions, it has the absolute force of a fact. Every performance is an existential act, an exalted interval in which time is focussed absolutely and the music of his imagination becomes sensual.

The time restriction that is placed on each piece is very much like the 78 rpm limit that existed for jazz recordings until the early fifties. Amadie doesn’t have time for a meandering or fruitless chorus that he will pick up later. There are no second takes in his world. He has decided never to play the same piece twice, so what you hear is what he has already distilled in his thought, practicing daily without touching a piano, thinking through each tune before he is able to give it physical life.

If the amount of forethought that Amadie puts into a piece might seem like a check on his spontaneity, there is always the unreliability of his hands to guarantee a genuine performance. He may have fewer functioning fingers midway through a piece than he began with, so he’s always prepared to shift direction.

For Always with Me, Amadie recorded a piece every six weeks; the positive response encouraged him to step up his recording schedule, so that he managed to record almost a piece a month for this CD. The increased [frequency] schedule took its toll in further injury, to the middle finger of his right hand and then to both thumbs. His schedule was interrupted for further hand and wrist surgeries. I mention this not to dwell on Amadie’s injuries or to make any excuses for his playing. Clearly none are needed. Rather, Amadie’s hands have actually combined with his persistence to contribute to his remarkable music. The brief moments in which Amadie can play are precious to him. He must make the most of them, and he does. ...

Amadie sounds nothing like what one might imagine from his circumstances. There is nothing ponderous, hesitant, fragile or fumbling here. But forearmed with his history, and listening as closely as possible, we begin to hear Amadie’s lightness, his buoyancy, as something very special, just as the unusual open voicings of his right hand result in part from a dysfunctional middle finger. How many steps are omitted in building a solo, how many directions signalled rather than taken? What significance is assigned each repetition of a vamp when a musician’s contact time with his instrument is so restricted? What special meanings arise in the sudden shifts and layerings that distinguish his up-tempo performances, or in the moving, lingering way he has with ballads? We are telescoped into the time of his making, the concentrated instants of his rare moments at the keyboard. Everything that distinguishes Amadie’s playing – its lightness, its firmness, its spontaneity, its ease – is purchased in the coin of its opposite.

If there’s a particular sign of Amadie’s special circumstances here, it’s in the way several tunes move from a deeply probing, harmonic exploration to choruses that suddenly flash with rhythmic vigor. That may in part come from thinking about “tension and release,” the technique he has written about in Jazz Improv: How to Play It and Teach It. It may be, too, that when a musician of Amadie’s depth can play a tune only once, he’ll find more than one way to play it at the same time. He’s a master of multiple musical thinking, and it comes through in the ways he combines keys or fuses modal and chordal approaches in a solo. Whatever else it might be, it’s also a sign of the joyous freedom that Amadie finds and gives when he’s playing.

In that interview with Scott Simon, Amadie remarked that “every note hurts and I just don’t want to waste any. I want to make as much music as I can. It’s a lot different when you’re older. You try to savor every moment. When you’re younger, you’re just eating, and as you get older you start to dine. And when I sit at the piano, I want to ‘dine.’” You hear it in the heightened thought with which he picks his notes, the deliberateness, the deft way he has with rhythm. Listeners, too, will savor every note on this recording.

*     *     *

Yes, it was a remarkable story, but what made it fascinating was the music itself. It lived for me as recent “mainstream” jazz seldom does, and the dimensions of Jimmy’s story would become more fascinating with each new chapter.

In some sense, jazz isn’t just improvised. It’s also situational, defined in part by the collective input of other musicians and an audience; and occasionally, with the chance circumstance of a room and a date. Jimmy’s desire to record with a group eventually found an outlet. While other pianists had recorded over a rhythm section’s tracks, he saw that possibility as too constraining. His friend Nick Brignola suggested a solution: that Jimmy record his part first, then orchestrate the piece for a bassist and drummer to add their parts. With new hand and wrist surgeries intervening the process took even longer than the previous solo CDs, but Jimmy managed to do it, working from 1997 to 2002 to produce A Salute to Sinatra with the subtle sub-title In a Trio Setting. The rhythm section consisted of bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin, then Phil Woods’ rhythm section.

At the overdub session, Amadie decided to record a trio performance of “Here’s That Rainy Day” with Gilmore and Goodwin, and was so happy with the results that he went on to record “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” When he assembled the CD, Amadie programmed the live tracks first, clearly giving pride of place to the real interactions rather than his “after the fact” orchestrations.

That sudden burst of live collaborative playing would determine the rest of his recording career. The next recording, A Tribute to Tony Bennett (2003), subtitled Live at Red Rock, was recorded in three sessions, two trio sessions with Gilmore and Goodwin that produced two tunes each, and a third session in which they were joined by Phil Woods on four tunes, Jimmy finally finding the opportunity to play with a horn player for the first time in nearly 40 years. The relationship with Woods developed further on Amadie’s fifth CD, Let’s Groove! A Tribute to Mel Tormé recorded in two sessions five months apart in 2004 and 2005. After that, Amadie decided to expand his horizons further.

For his next two CDs, he decided to take the three-session approach to a CD in a new direction, foregoing the tributes to singers’ repertoires and enlisting a different horn player for each session. The Philadelphia Story: The Gospel As We Know It was spread out over ten months for sessions with trumpeter Randy Brecker, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson and tenor saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin, with Gilmore and Goodwin again on bass and drums. Amadie, who would turn 70 during these sessions, was clearly still unfolding, each session more alive, more creative than the one before. Three years later, after being diagnosed with lung cancer, Amadie went through the same process with Kindred Spirits with Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano and Tabackin again. The CDs are at a consistently high level but even then there were stand-outs, like “Alone Together” with Golson and “Well, You Needn’t” with Lovano.

Jimmy’s last CD, Something Special, announced a new trio, with Tony Marino (present on some of Kindred Spirits) taking the place of Steve Gilmore. Jimmy’s hands had improved to the point where he could record half an hour of music at a session, and there seems to be some special stimulus in Marino’s playing. Taking nothing away from Gilmore, Marino is a more aggressive and melodic bassist, often creating elaborate lines and moving from support to dialogue, changing the make-up of the trio. It’s a new conception in Amadie’s music and he’s further lifted by the approach. As good as Amadie always is, some of his very best moments are here, his hard-edged lyricism reaching its zenith on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” and “My Funny Valentine.” It was the same trio that Jimmy took to his live performance at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in October 2011 (available on DVD), the apotheosis of the comeback that he had begun more than fifteen years before.

Clearly Jimmy got a great deal out of jazz: nothing else could explain his incredible persistence in the face of great pain and frustration. Clearly each step in his path was carefully considered, but at each stage it resulted in music filled with joy and spontaneity. From the first time I heard Jimmy, and heard his story, though, I thought jazz might have gotten more out of him. Jimmy’s music lives with passion and vision: it restores to the traditional material of jazz something of its dimension and scale that are often not apparent. Melodic development and harmonic imagination, group purpose and rhythmic élan entwine in his music to create the kind of emotional nuance and shade that was the hallmark of the best jazz of the 1950s. He was a time traveller for whom jazz was a necessary language, and you hear his impress on every musician who played with him in those brief sessions.

*      *      *

The next day in Helsinki I went out in a cold rain to walk the miles to Eila Hiltunen’s Sibelius Monument. It’s the perfect site to contemplate all the lost and longed for and yet-to-come music and musicians. First appearing like a shimmering silver tree in the mist, up close it becomes a nest of abstract, coiling organ pipes, now doubly organic forms with rune-like markings, silent themselves but taking responsibility for all the surrounding song from nearby tree and highway and sea.

Stuart Broomer©2014

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